Why the UEFA Champions League is huge for Liverpool

Jack Hallows looks at why the Reds being in the Champions League is pivotal ahead of next season and why we are no longer in ‘transition.’

I owe Arsenal fans a real apology. Finishing fourth is quite sweet.

While the Reds didn’t win a trophy this season, there was evident progress during Jürgen Klopp’s first full campaign as Liverpool manager. The German returned the Reds back amongst Europe’s elite – given we win our playoff – where they belong and you just have to look at the bigger picture to see the positives sprinkled all over 2016/17.

No longer back to square one

Had the Reds bottled it against Middlesbrough on the final day and finished in fifth, we would’ve essentially wasted the entirety of Klopp’s first 18 months in charge.

We’d have been back to square one and stuck in the endless cycle of ‘transition’ that we’d have inevitably been resigned to had Klopp’s successor Brendan Rodgers stayed in charge. That’s not a shot at Brendan by any stretch but he simply didn’t have the tactical nuance or pulling power that Klopp possesses. For the German to be stuck outside Europe’s top competition for another season would’ve been nothing short of a crime.

Klopp spoke last season of players being interested in the project he was building but preferring to wait until he’d already managed to overcome the lack of Champions League hurdle. He was quoted as saying, “I want players who will push the train, not jump on it,” and as such our summer was filled with signings that at the time underwhelmed. Of course, looking back on it now it’s the general consensus that Mané, Wijnaldum and Matip were three of our most important players across the campaign but none set the fanbase or Twitter-sphere alight on arrival.

Raphinha, Coutinho and Tielemans: The signings Liverpool could make this summer

This year will, however, be different. The ‘train’ is very much in motion and while it’s still got a long way to go before the final destination – presumably a Premier League title – it’s likely going to get some far superior help as the Reds target a higher bracket of players. Klopp has already spoken of identifying targets early and holding positive initial talks and it’s gotten me seriously excited. As much as I trust the manager and will back whatever signings he makes, to see him targeting players who are as highly rated/sought after as Naby Keita and Virgil Van Dijk is hugely encouraging.

Honestly, with Champions League football there is no reason the Reds can’t sign these players. Suddenly it doesn’t even seem ridiculous to read reports of the Reds sniffing around an unsettled Aubameyang. If FSG back the manager with the funds he needs then this transfer window has the real potential to ensure that the Reds trajectory remains moving in a solely upward direction.

The next step

The next step as Klopp and a number of his players have reminded us in recent days, is to win a trophy. While we should be happy with our top four finish, it’s definitely reasonable to not be satisfied with it and I’m glad that while the players are evidently relieved, they’re not sitting entirely on Champions League football as the end of their goals.

The Reds need to start adding silverware to their trophy cabinet because as Klopp knows and has echoed, nobody remembers second – or fourth for that matter. The Reds have come close already under the German, suffering the heartache of two final losses and a semi-final exit but the way the Reds dug in under pressure during the final weeks of this season was encouraging.

It’s not unfair to suggest that there was still a large mentality problem when the Reds strode out onto the pitch both at Wembley and in Basel last year. The underdog mentality of the Brendan Rodgers era hadn’t had time to leave the squads entirely and personally, I do wonder what would’ve happened had Klopp been at the club since the very start of last season. The semi-final exit from the EFL Cup this season was more down to available personnel than anything. When you’re missing two of your key men and another handful are just coming back from injury or playing through niggling problems you’re never going to get a performance at 100% capacity.

The Reds mentality to play every one of their last handful of league fixtures in the same way they would a cup final was worrying from the start but for them to win five of their last seven was encouraging. The Middlesbrough game in itself wasn’t a cup final but carried just as much pressure as one and the Reds held their nerve superbly.

It took a little bit of luck and a lot of graft but the second half was a joy to watch and was the final proof that the Reds deserved fourth spot more than Arsenal. With this positive mentality, ability to graft out wins and a few new additions to the squad, there is no reason that the Reds can’t take that next step and win some silverware next year.

Continuing to convert the doubters

Incredibly, there are still doubters of Klopp’s powers amongst the Liverpool fanbase and sadly, their unrealistic expectations of the German having won all the trophies possible by now are part of the problem. Klopp has already converted a large percentage of the fanbase that wasn’t convinced when he joined but a solid transfer window and a run in the Champions League are the next steps towards turning the remaining minority.

If the German can truly make the most of this opportunity to strengthen his squad ahead of next season then there is no reason that Liverpool can’t win their playoff and enjoy a run in the Champions League, challenge once again for a top four spot and win a trophy on the side. Squad depth and an over-reliance on Sadio Mané were our biggest hindrances this campaign and a handful of quality signings can help rectify that and ensure no occurrence of deja vu.

This club is going places and for once, we are no longer stuck in an endless, tiresome cycle of ‘excuses, transition, underwhelming football, excuses, transition, repeat.’ It’s time to make the most of our chance and for Klopp to prove that we are in fact deeply immersed in the next steps of progress.

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